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Roads to Nowhere

This future roads vision is heading in the wrong direction

Bridget Fox's picture

Like the Strategic Road Network it seeks to shape, the next Road Investment Strategy needs to be better connected to the world around it, and to the real transport challenges we face.


In responding to the recent Government consultation on the future of England’s Strategic Roads, we say there are major problems both with what’s in Highways England’s proposals, and with what’s been left out.

A programme centred on more motorway widening, building new orbital roads around cities, and adding new expressways between them, will simply repeat all the problems from the failed road programmes of the past. By contrast the priorities for road users, as reported by Transport Focus, are maintenance, road surfacing, safety and reliability. 

Highways England says “With limited funding, we need to make difficult decisions about how we prioritise between extending the life of some of our oldest and busiest roads, and building new roads to ease congestion”. That shouldn't be a hard choice to make. Building new roads takes resources away from maintenance, and new roads won’t “ease congestion” either.  

In fact, encouraging more traffic onto the road network will lead to more congestion and less reliability in future, while expanding the network will also increase long term maintenance costs. This is the opposite of what road users want. The case for a Fix it First approach is strong.

Highways England’s aspiration “to run a network which works harmoniously with its surroundings to deliver an overall positive impact on the environment” is welcome, but needs to be backed by more specific policies and, crucially, a move away from new road capacity. With other NGOs, we’ve written to the Roads Minister, highlighting our shared vision for greener roads, focused on maintenance, integration and environmental leadership.

For years, we’ve been fighting plans for new roads in some of the country’s most precious places. Our call for no major road widening and no new roads in our National Parks, ancient woodlands and other nationally important landscapes and wildlife sites has had a huge response, with thousands of people adding their voice.  

Highways England's report is not all bad: there are some points we welcome, including proposals for more funding for local safety schemes, for better roadside rest areas, high quality cycle routes and measures to reduce noise and light pollution. But there is much that needs to change before this is a future roads vision we can support. 

Repeated studies show that the economic benefits of new roads are at best over-stated. Traditional transport appraisal has consistently underestimated the economic benefits of bus services, walking and cycling provision and overstated the value of small scale savings in road travel time, leading to an imbalance in favour of unsustainable road building.  Yet as Cycling UK and London Cycling Campaign point out, the DfT’s own figures show that spending on cycling offers far better benefit-to-cost ratios than road building schemes.

The expert Local Government Technical Advisers Group has underlined the substantial evidence to show that spending on most road enlargements proposed will increase traffic and pollution in the urban areas which already have the most congestion.

“Expenditure on the SRN… will not help the majority of people getting to work and will probably increase the time taken to make whole journeys; it will also encourage dispersal of developments, reduce green spaces and reduce the potential to be able to feed ourselves as the world’s population increases.” 

Local Government Technical Advisers Group

Highways England’s report on long-term planning sees greater use of buses and public transport only as part of a ‘diminished prosperity’ scenario. This is both offensive and misguided. Modern buses are an integral part of vibrant, prosperous cities that achieve sustainable growth while managing congestion.

Despite acknowledging key trends such as the growth in online commerce, remote and flexible working, and falling car ownership, they still conclude that growing road capacity is both inevitable and desirable.

With this uncritical acceptance of traffic growth, Highways England risks setting the Road Investment Strategy on a course for waste and failure.

The single greatest future need is to meet CO2 reduction targets to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts. Any transport strategy must plan to cut traffic as part of the minimum changes needed to meet CO2 budgets that are already off track, with transport the most emitting sector. In its current form, the Road Investment Strategy wholly fails to deliver. 

The Government is championing the 25 year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy as “an ambitious blueprint for Britain’s low carbon future”.  How the Road Investment Strategy shapes up will be an important test for that commitment.


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